Fox News is hosting a Bernie Sanders town hall — here’s why the Vermont socialist was smart to say ‘yes’

Fox News is hosting a Bernie Sanders town hall — here’s why the Vermont socialist was smart to say ‘yes’
Gage Skidmore

On April 15, Fox News will be hosting a town hall event featuring the most left-of-center candidate in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary: self-described “democratic socialist” and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. This comes as a surprise in light of Fox News’ right-wing leanings. But Sanders was wise to accept the invitation, and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has said that it is OK with Sanders’ participation in the event.

In March, the DNC declared that it would not let Fox News host any Democratic presidential primary debates—a decision that some prominent Democrats publicly disagreed with, including former DNC Chairman Ed Rendell (who also served as governor of Pennsylvania and mayor of Philadelphia). The centrist Rendell asserted that while he understood the DNC’s concerns about fairness, that decision was a “mistake”—and that instead of excluding Fox News altogether from its presidential primary debates, Democrats should include them but be selective about who they embrace at Fox.

Rendell told Fox News’ far-right Laura Ingraham, “I think (DNC Chairman) Tom Perez is doing a good job, but if I was DNC chair, I would say, ‘Give me Bret Baier, Chris Wallace and Juan Williams—and you can have that Fox debate anywhere, anytime, any number of times... I would be confident that it would be fair. If we could pick the commentators and the moderators, I think we should have the debate on Fox because let me tell you, even if you persuade 3% of Fox viewers, 3% last time out carries Michigan.”

Sanders, evidently, feels the same way. The April 15 town hall will not be hosted by Ingraham, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson or Jeannine Pirro—all of whom are known for their incendiary far-right commentary—but by Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, two of the more reasonable people at Fox News.

Fox News’ programming ranges from its hard news division—as in Baier, Wallace, MacCallum and Shepard Smith—to its often controversial opinion shows, which generally draw high ratings but can frighten advertisers. And Fox News’ sales executives have recently been going out of their way to bring that news division to the attention of advertisers. The Fox News sales department probably welcomes the Sanders town hall because no matter how much Hannity, Carlson, etc. detest the Vermont senator’s point of view, the town hall makes sense from an advertising standpoint.

For Sanders, it makes sense because he realizes that it is important to not only speak to those he agrees with, but also, skeptics and nonbelievers he is hoping to win over—especially in the Rust Belt states that went to President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 but went to Trump in 2016: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio. If Sanders grants an interview to Mother Jones or The Progressive, he is preaching to the choir and addressing a generally sympathetic audience that shares many of his views—whereas at Fox News, he is going head to head with a very different crowd.

The trick is to have someone at Fox who is going to ask tough questions (which Sanders welcomes) but still be reasonable. As odious as Carlson and Hannity can be, a town hall hosted by Baier and MacCallum can be an opportunity for Sanders to show skeptics why “democratic socialism” (which is really New Deal capitalism with a strong social safety net) is beneficial.

Nonetheless, Sanders is drawing some criticism from the left for his decision to participate in the April 15 debate. This week, progressive activist Angelo Carusone has tweeted that at a time when a channel that is full of “bigotry and extremism” is facing “advertiser blowback,” the last thing Sanders should be doing is helping them sell advertising. Carusone has tweeted that it’s “debatable” whether or not “we need to talk to the Fox News audience.”

Media Matters' Matthew Gertz, similarly, has tweeted that during a “moment of maximum vulnerability for Fox News,” it is “a bad time to throw them a rope.” And activist Murshed Zaheed tweeted that talking to “Trump’s propaganda machine” is “not a good look for someone who wants be Democratic nominee. Hope @BernieSanders reconsiders this decision.”

DNC spokesperson Xochitl Hinojosa has offered some clarity on why the DNC has refused to let Fox News host any Democratic presidential debates but is comfortable with the April 15 town hall, saying, “While the DNC does not believe that Fox is equipped to be a partner for a 2020 debate because of concerns of fairness at the highest levels within their organization, the DNC believes that we must reach all voters, including their audience. Therefore, candidates should do what they need to do in order to engage these voters directly.”

That’s what Sanders obviously has in mind: engaging with Fox News’ audience directly. Certainly, Sanders is not afraid of a challenge: his 2016 campaign was considered a longshot but became a full-fledged movement, inspiring unapologetic left-of-center Democrats like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman. That campaign wildly outperformed even Sanders’ expectations, and his 2020 campaign has raised $18 million during its first quarter.

But if Sanders does ultimately receive the 2020 Democratic nomination, he is going to be fighting a tough battle in swing states. And bearing that in mind, his participation in the April 15 town hall makes perfect sense.

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